Monday, July 23, 2012

Glassy Knolls and the Public Thrust

RoboCop (1987)
directed by Paul Verhoeven
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

RoboCop is one of those movies that most people I knew had seen before they got to college.  I hadn't, so I never did.  In some ways I always expected it to look dated, I guess because Total Recall seems like such an early-90s artifact in my head.  Is it the cinematography?  The production design?  Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger?

RoboCop looks like 1987.  Verhoeven was almost fifty when he directed it.  I'm glad I waited twenty-five years (!) to chance upon RoboCop on Netflix, since the decades gave the Internet time to log every piece of trivia that fans could gather.  Now I don't have to spend my morning trying to puzzle out whether the movie is "fascism for liberals," a black comedy, or a conservative dream come true.  It doesn't really matter.

The first thing I noticed was the Twin Peaks connection - Miguel Ferrer, Dan O'Herlihy, Ray Wise - which, once I'd confirmed that Dan O'Herlihy played Andrew Packard through IMDB, inevitably sent me down the rabbit hole of re-reading proposed Twin Peaks storylines.  I still shake my head at Kyle MacLachlan and his moralism with regards to season two.  I'd have missed Annie, of course, but it makes so much more sense for Windom Earle to kidnap Audrey and leave her in the Black Lodge.  Romance!

RoboCop is not romantic.  Human relations of any sort are subverted by a super-ego-driven obsession with latex and firearms.  Since most of the exteriors were filmed in Dallas, not Detroit, the movie felt like an inside joke about "Big D," except that Verhoeven is Dutch, and had probably never been to Texas.  I enjoyed myself most in the most excessive moments, which revolve around Rob Bottin's special effects.  I couldn't buy the dad from That '70s Show as a villain, but I like to think that the toxic waste mutant reappears in Irvin Kershner's sequel, arm in arm with Peter Weller, painting the town red.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Anything So Edgar Allan Poeish

Wings (1927)
directed by William A. Wellman
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The Sound Barrier (1952)
directed by David Lean
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Wings was my grandfather's favorite movie.  He collected aviation books, built detailed models of airplanes, and owned prints commemorating famous dogfights from the first World War.  In World War II, my grandfather served in the Navy on a transport ship in the Pacific.  He was a passenger aboard a Concorde once, from New York to Paris.

The aerial sequences in Wings were filmed in San Antonio, at Kelly Field.  It is meant to pass for the French countryside, and does.  No one flies over the Alamo.  The scrub brush looks bombed-about as is.

The Sound Barrier, released twenty-five years later, tells of British efforts to build a jet that can break Mach 1, then erroneously contends that the British were the first to successfully do so.  But Lean's is the better movie, and the obvious template for every flight-related film from The Right Stuff to Apollo 13Wings is famous for putting cameras on planes, but the love triangle at the story's center is standard sentimentality.

Still, it's difficult not to see Gary Cooper (as Cadet White) as the consummate aerial daredevil, onscreen for two sexy minutes until he dies in a fiery crash.  "Luck or no luck," he says, "when your time comes, you're going to get it."  White packs a bar of almond milk chocolate, cultural precursor to Beeman's gum.

The Sound Barrier is about irresponsible men committed to legacies instead of the wives who love them and the children they conceived together: selfishness masking as the greater good.  While her test pilot husband takes to the air each afternoon, Susan (Ann Todd) sits in at the local matinee, where she can't hear the engines overhead.

Lean vigorously defends science as the philosophy of progressive men/Modern Man.  Engineers talk of "continuous creation."  They mean the past, present, and future, encompassed in what a telescope can accomplish, because of how it's made - mirrors and angles - and the people who understood enough to imagine it in the first place.  "There were books once that said the earth was flat," a pilot says, just before he volunteers for the mission that will kill him.  He sits on the runway in his jet and watches a bird above him, and then the wind as it moves through a field of wheat in the countryside around him.

Tony dies with half an hour to go, and in an incredible follow-up, Leans surveys the wreckage as men with cranes and winches try to excavate the pilot's body from the airplane's crater, deep in the ground: a smear of fuselage and soil, barely anything human at all.  Afterwards, Susan lies in bed and stares out her window at the stars.  They are worse than any horror movie, unblinking and far away.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Live Action

The Battle of Midway (1942)
directed by John Ford
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Report from the Aleutians (1943)
directed by John Huston
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Restrepo (2010)
directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

Tim Hetherington, who died in Libya in 2011, was still alive when I first read Sue Halpern's review of Restrepo in 2010.  The article made me sad in an ambivalent, directionless way, although my anger is more focused each time I'm asked by a well-meaning volunteer to donate money to the President's re-election campaign over the phone.  I think about another President - LBJ - in those situations.  It wasn't until I left Texas after high school that I realized my good opinion of the man and his legacy was in the minority, most of the time.

Robert Caro convincingly argues that Johnson stole the 1948 election for Senate.  Johnson's later decision to escalate the war in Vietnam was based on fallacies and arrogance.  Taken together, those two actions subverted the tenets of democracy and got a lot of kids killed.  But Johnson did more that was good for the average American - good that can still be seen today, in spite of Republican efforts to chip it away piecemeal - than any modern President, and remains the public figure I bring to mind when I am at the voting booth, pulling a lever for a Democratic candidate.

US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a terrible mistake, and the men and women who died because of it deserved better from our government.  I do not believe in an "anti-war" film; as Halpern notes, via Junger, "war is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them."  Restrepo is about men more than war, and the movie is an exercise in humility and understanding.  I started watching it while ironing shirts, then put the iron and ironing board away and continued on into the early evening, until the pets were restless for dinner.

I believe that I have the right perspective on the US military's overseas operations in my lifetime, but in truth it is one man's opinion.  In my mind I cannot imagine the pervasiveness of World War II in daily life seventy years ago.  I do not know what it is like to have war be the thing that everyone is talking about, so how can it be anything other than quaint to hear Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell converse in fictional roles in The Battle of Midway?

Ford and Huston were both proud of the wartime documentaries they made.  The best moments in The Battle of Midway come when a cadet plays "Red River Valley" on accordion on the beach at sunrise, and later when the narrator, Donald Crisp, counts the long watch of days while the Navy waits to bring in every last man it can find after the battle.  "Nine days, ten days..."  There are unintentionally funny asides that take some of the air out of Ford's self-importance: a reference to a nurse's "soft hands," or an East Coast dig as Crisp identifies the Pacific as "America's front yard."  Report from the Aleutians is longer, and more technical, and like Restrepo, interested in the behavior and routines of soldiers over time.  Huston narrates all 48 minutes himself, and taught me a lot I didn't know about a place I've never been.

All three should be seen.  Taken together, I do not know if they say more about the movies or men, about bravery or folly, about glory or irrelevance.  I know how I feel about war, but I watched them anyway.  None of them changed my mind.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Raining to Beat the Brennan

Banjo On My Knee (1936)
directed by John Cromwell
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

Walter Brennan won the Oscar for Come and Get It in 1936 but enjoys himself more as a one-man band who lives in a "shanty" boat on the banks of the Mississippi River.  His son is bull-headed Joel McCrea, who falls in love with an equally stubborn Barbara Stanwyck.  Babs is from the "mainland," of course, much to long-suffering Katherine DeMille's chagrin.  The grass is always greener and the women more sophisticated the farther one gets from the water.  Everyone makes a bad decision impulsively, and then sets out to try and track down the person he chased away.

The squalid barges against the shore seem like a bad joke at first, as if a roomful of writers at Fox couldn't get enough of cracking each other up with increasingly degrading rural storylines.  But the atmosphere is too inviting, too pleasant.  Instead of a low-class jamboree, the principals participate in something more animated than but equally glamorous and exotic as a soiree on the docks of West Egg.

Everyone makes his way to New Orleans, eventually, where the melting pot of Louisiana culture is given its due.  Impatient with McCrea's dense repetition, Cromwell latches onto a down-and-out singer who falls in love with DeMille.  A straight shooter, he promises to do his best to provide for her, and it's a better offer than she'll get from Joel.  But she passes it up and breaks the singer's heart.  In some ways Banjo On My Knee is a movie about trying to get out of your hometown, and how tough that can be, and how the wrong sort of person - the person that could save you but doesn't - sometimes sticks you in the mud and leaves.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

“The day he was born, there was salt in the air.”

Blood and Sand (1941)
directed by Rouben Mamoulian
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix 

Rouben Mamoulian was an Armenian from Imperial Russia who made it to Hollywood via London and New York.  He was interested in technical experimentation and, like Josef von Sternberg, saw sets, cameras, and actors as means to a subconscious end.  Unlike Joe Sternberg, Mamoulian is freer with motion and speed.  Von Sternberg’s best movies drift like smoke.  They linger and curl and get inside your head.

Any director who prioritizes atmosphere is in love with visions and the dream state, but Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is fierce and full of life.  Its impressions are sharp and cannot be dismissed as easily as a nightmare can.  I saw the movie last fall and thought about it all winter.  Mamoulian directed sixteen movies, and they are not widely available.  Becky Sharp, the first three-strip Technicolor film, slogs unrestored through the public domain.

Anyone who watches a lot of movies makes his way to directors like Rouben Mamoulian eventually, so I hesitate to say that he should be better known.  But one should avail oneself of Blood and Sand.  Mamoulian was after the oils of Spanish masters: El Greco, Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez.  But movies do not need paintings to justify their visions. Technicolor candlelight deserves a wall in any museum, as there is nothing that suggests the repose and potential of a settled imagination better.  I mean that memory from childhood of reading a book like Treasure Island and picturing a pirate ship anchored out of the wind.  Or the joy upon seeing a city that does not remind you of anyplace you came from.

It is easy to romanticize Spain, with its trajes de luces and bloody bulls.  Mamoulian pursues death instead: at the inky alter where espadas “offer their devotions and seek protection of the saints;” in the low choral music behind the sad roll of a snare drum; through Rita Hayworth, hidden in a corner in a second shade of purple – bruise upon bruise.  Death is the hero.  He is powerful, silent.  Statuary comes to life in death’s presence, in the place where a mother prays to hasten the mutilation of her son.

Hayworth is beautiful but seems oddly older than she was.  Melodrama runs roughshod through the script.  Juan himself bemoans his own illiteracy above more significant failings; his dying regret is not the wife he mistreated or the friends he threw aside, but the words - newspaper articles, mostly - he cannot read.  To seduce Juan, Hayworth’s Doña Sol plays him a song on the guitar, but Juan is exhausted and falls asleep instead.  When he wakes, the mansion is silent and nearly empty.  He wanders about, looking for the exit, then stumbles on the room where the Doña sleeps.  He watches her, unclear as to which of them is in the other’s dream.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

We've All Had Our Socks Tossed Around

Come and Get It (1936)
directed by Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson, and William Wyler
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Come and Get It includes this great exchange, between Edward Arnold (as a hard-changing titan of the Wisconsin timber industry) and Walter Brennan ("Swan Bostrom," the titan's Swedish pal):

"Wonder what she's doing in a place like this."
"What's the matter with this place?"

"She" is Frances Farmer, famous for two roles in this movie - Swan's wife and daughter - and for her personal life, full of difficulties.  But plenty of people with sad stories don't leave enigmas like the character of Lotta Morgan behind.  There's no one I've seen quite like her in movies.  She winds up with Swan because Arnold's Barney Glasgow is too ambitious a businessman to follow his heart.  Swan is kind but old.

That's the narrative, at least, but the many mysteries of Come and Get It drift at the periphery of so much melodrama.  The first half is best, with pulp and lumber on cabin walls and in the drinks at the saloon.  Richard Rosson's second-unit logging sequences inevitably bring Twin Peaks to mind, and the pretty barmaid with a strange cadence and private past pulls the dark woods and wilderness close around her.

Shocks follow - death, a jump in time, that eerie resurrection - but, good as Arnold is, he is only adequate as the remorseful multi-millionaire that Glasgow becomes, characteristically opposed to reforestation and taxes.  Men like that aren't sympathetic, not at all.  I realized later that the movie I enjoyed so much for the first half hour (maybe longer?) was a setup for a less profound pronouncement on regret.  But Hawks, briefly, is full of surprises: two leading men that don't fit the mold and someone like a ghost or a hearth fire between them.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Meet the Press

Veep – Season One (2012)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched on HBO GO 

I watched more “on the air” TV this past fall and spring than I ever have.  I enjoy a little more access than I used to and I wanted to keep up with the shows that people talk about.  For the most part, regular patronage is a mess, at least without a DVR or a better cable package.  Depending on the week, Cougar Town aired at 8:00, 8:30, or not at all.  Advertisements interrupt.  Breaking Bad is expensive on iTunes.

All told, the hustle isn’t worth it.  Comedies are more fun in sustained weekend-long, three-disc benders.  Dramas seem endless stretched over months.  Did Jon Snow do anything besides wander through the arctic this season, girl with the Girlfriend hood by his side?  Game of Thrones, inexplicably, sapped my interest in books I’ve already read and looked forward to seeing onscreen.

Or maybe the best isn’t very good.  Wasn’t Parks and Recreation funnier when Ron Swanson’s staff moved as a unit?  But then the group splintered to pursue individual projects, and now each week is a catalogue of interminable asides.  Can Andy, April, Ben, and Chris all die in a house fire?  Can we call off the patriotic speeches?

The comedy was… mushy, even in Community, beloved for its rapist’s wit.  Cougar Town has Grayson, at least, but also that absurd son, the attention hog.  I like Cougar Town, actually, in spite of the kid.  It also works great as a half-hour distraction every once in awhile; the “weekend rule” doesn’t apply.

That’s the problem with not reviewing each show as a season: I run them all together impatiently.  I think Breaking Bad probably peaked with season three, but I’ll be paying for the fifth on Sunday, gladly.  The first episode of this year’s Eastbound & Down was the best since season one.  The rest was just like season two: unnecessary, tiresome, and except for Stevie (and maybe Andrea, the college girlfriend), a reminder of how much a character like Kenny needs a strong woman like April onscreen with him at all times.  That first season is a wonder, but this?  Endlessly renewed, endless guest stars, and Will Ferrell, bloated planet, spiraling into the sun?  Too much.

Then there was Veep.  I was suspicious at first.  The British pedigree might not translate.  The preview wasn’t funny. It’s incredibly easy to waste time on HBO GO.  I’d watched both McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice and Game Change the week before; I defended Luck to near strangers. 

Veep does not need my defense.  Whatever I expected, this was much better: quick on its feet and warm as a day at the beach.  I think the worst you can say about a lot of popular comedies is that they use the same humor as car commercials, innocuous but insincere.  Which is fine, until a Party Down or Archer appears and demonstrates what writers and actors can do with unlikable characters deeply loved by their creators. 

There isn’t a member of Selina Meyer’s team I don’t want to spend time with.  Plots don’t revolve around arbitrary outside machinations (an easy device for any political series), but minor personal setbacks and failures brought on by the regrets, ambitions, and sympathetic selfishness of a very funny cast.  Veep could take place anywhere: a fast food restaurant, a space station, World War II.  It’s set in Washington, presumably, because office sets are cheap to build, and the city of Baltimore doesn’t charge too much for a day of filming at Camden Yards.

Showrunner Armando Iannucci is thanked in the preface to Alan Moore’s latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen adventure, a bitter book that includes a reference to the cable spy show Burn NoticeBurn Notice, as I’ve said before, is a low-stakes lark.  I like that Moore is aware of it, although whether he actually tunes in for Michael Westen’s Miami romance or merely includes it as so much mattress ticking, I can’t say.  But because of Iannucci, I’ll give Moore the credit he might not deserve.  Veep makes you want to see the best in people.